Djokovic's Year of Wonder

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124801854FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. — Standing tall, moving with ease, oozing with a quiet confidence based on months of success, Novak Djokovic hit out with astounding ease.  Stepping in with his flawless technique and balanced power, he blasted flat and accurate lasers from both wings and returned serve like a deft swordsman.

Clearly, this thin, gaunt warrior has taken his sport to an even higher than ever, post-Federer level.

What the Serb lacks in balletic grace, he made up with an uncanny geometric sense of the court and a chess master’s savvy as he changed directions, goes from offense to defense and demolishes his gifted foes. Today, he simply pounded yesterday’s hero — bull Rafael Nadal to  win his first U.S. Open 6-2, 6-2, 6-7(3), 6-1 to collect his third Slam of the year.

The man who just a three years ago was maligned on Ashe Stadium by wise guy Andy Roddick for having 16 diseases including SARS and was hooted by the throng now, after 4:16 of sizzling combat,  blasted a fierce inside out forehand on championship point and fell on his back challenges in sport, the Big Apple challenge: “If you can do it there you can do it anywhere.”

But it wasn’t easy. Never mind hurricanes, annoying rains and delays. He survived a memorable first set tie-break  (14-12) against Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgolopov in the fourth round  and then (thanks to “The Shot Heard Round the World”  a forehand return of serve when he was down match point to Roger Federer in the semis) against the still-dangerous-after-all-these-years Swiss.

In the final, Djokovic stood firm and subdued a brave comeback from Nadal to prevail. Famously, at Wimbledon, lost his fifth final of the year to Djokovic. The Spaniard openly confided he would have to figure out something about Djokovic or he would again be explaining why he had lost for for a sixth time. In his new autobiography, Rafa notes in some detail how he can break down Federer, there is a game plan. But against Djokovic, there is nothing.

Not that Rafa didn’t have his chances. He broke serve early in both of the first two sets. But Djokovic’s counter-attack was unflinching. In the first set he won six straight games. In the third game of the second set Rafa failed to hold serve in a marathon 17-minute, six deuce game that could have tipped the momentum.  But the pattern was clear. Rafa was able break, but four times he failed to solidify the break by holding his own serve.

Rafa —  playing deep in the court. He was being “yoo-yooed” from corner to corner. Still, hebravely forced a tie-break in the third and took advantage of three Rafa errors to collect the tiebreak 7-3.

But the Spaniard had given his all just to win the third set. And, despite Novak’s tight back that required a medical time out, the fourth set was all his. The Open was the fourth Slam of his career and immediately the debate began.

The Serb’s record for the year is an incredible 64-2. He’s won three Slams (Australia, Roland Garros and N.Y.), he has five masters, a mind-boggling 20-2 record against top ten players and he’s lost only one match to his two top foes – Nadal and Federer. Plus, he led Serbia to the Davis Cup in December. Yes, the great Rod Laver won two Slams. John McEnroe was 82-3 in ’84 and won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and Federer was 81-4 in ’05 with wins at Wimbledon and the U.S. There is more tennis to be played this year. But, arguably Djokovic’s accomplishments are more impressive, have greater range over varied surfaces and across assorted continents.

In the end the slim Serb has crafted the greatest 10-months in tennis history.